This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Megan Warin (Adelaide) and Natali Valdez (Wellesley)
In April 2020 in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic a twitter post of a woman protesting at a rally in Texas circulated around the world. It was an image of a young, white woman attending a ‘You can’t Close America Rally’ on the steps of the Texas State Capital building in Austin (see below). The rally was allegedly organised by InfoWars, and video footage shows its founder Alex Jones yelling through a megaphone to the small crowd. Scattered through the crowd are American flags, anti-vaccination slogans, demands for freedom to work, proclamations of the ‘choice to die’, ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, chants of ‘U-S-A’ and references to the First Amendment. Footage shows that this is overwhelmingly a group of white people, most not wearing masks, and not practising social distancing.
Twitter feeds immediately appeared to support this image, and commentaries included the hashtags #NoMask, #MyBodyMyChoice, #FetusBodyFetusChoice and #ProLife, directly linking the right to not wear a mask with anti-abortion stances. Others were jarred by the image, tweeting: ‘So, the #NoMask folks, who are often the same as the #ProLife folks, are going with #MyBodyMyChoice as their slogan. And they don’t see the irony, do they?’ Another tweet stated: ‘Never in a million years did I expect to see a Trump supporter brandishing a ‘My Body, My Choice’ sign.
Clearly the irony alluded to here refers to the co-opting of a well-known slogan from feminist campaigns that have fought for women to have control and autonomy over their own bodies and reproductive lives. We first began to see these slogans around the time of the 1973 Roe v Wade case, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the US. Since then, the slogan has generally been taken as a global symbol of feminist collective movements and women’s agency and choice in relation to their bodies. Recently, the slogan ‘My Body, My Choice’ was highly visible in protests against conservative states in the US seeking to mount new legal challenges to Roe v Wade case and banning abortion (and in some states making it a felony, and with no reprieve for rape or incest). It is an enduring and politically charged set of words.
Wearing or not wearing a mask has become a marker of partisan politics, so obviously performed by Trump and Biden, and their supporters in Democrat and Republican states. Co-opting the pro-choice politics is seen by conservatives as a clever way of using the opposition’s argument for their own agenda, in a manoeuvre that effectively closes off a right of reply. If anti-abortionists can leverage the ‘My Body, My Choice’ arguments for reproductive rights, then it can equally be used as a stand in the arguments for not wearing a mask. In shifting to embody the ‘pro-choice’ agenda, activists are claiming the right to flout the state lockdown laws, and to exercise their constitutional rights of individual liberty and freedom.
But the #NoMask campaign isn’t so clever. Firstly, the act of not wearing a mask and gathering in close proximity during a pandemic flies in the face of ‘pro-life’, for being exposed to someone who carries COVID-19 potentially takes away their life, and in turn, the lives of others. Contagion doesn’t respect political boundaries.
And secondly, while choice was certainly a powerful slogan of the early women’s liberation movement, there has been a significant move away from this rhetoric as it has become increasingly enfolded into neoliberal ideologies that misrecognise and deny freedom. As feminist critiques have suggested, the cultural object of choice – with its emphasis on individualism, subjectification and capitalism – masks the ways in which the empowerment of choice works to reinscribe dominant values (Gill 2017). The protesters at the Texas rally may feel empowered by the collective action of their campaign, what they are fighting for, ironically, is a highly individualised Euro-American narrative of freedom and racialised capitalism (Laster Pirtle 2020) that values self-interest and personal freedom at the expense of their lives and others.
More importantly, it is the work of Black feminists and their incisive critiques of reproductive freedom that we want to highlight in this debate. In their book Reproductive Justice, Ross and Solinger (2017) outline how neoliberal notions of choice are also explicitly tied to racist agendas. The disinvestment of social safety nets including reproductive healthcare, were galvanised by the racist rhetoric of the “Welfare Queen.” The reproduction of poor Black people was framed as a threat to the state, and a threat to a white supremacist imagination of the country. As Roberts examines in her book Killing the Black Body (1998), managing, surveying, and controlling the reproduction of Black women in particular, dates back to slavery, and continues through women’s suffragist movement, and the popularised idea of 2nd wave feminism.
The underlying message of slogans like ‘My Body, My Choice’ is ‘white bodies have choices.’ The ‘freedom’ to not wear a mask is not equally accessible to everyone, and neither are the health risks. Black, Brown and Indigenous people have a higher risk of dying from Covid-19 and by the hands of the police. The assertion that (white) bodies have individual rights and choices is based on a long-standing racist idea woven into the fabric of American culture: Black people are not treated as if they are human, right bearing individuals, and notions of reproductive freedom have never applied to them. Perpetuating the myth of ‘my body my rights’ further entrenches the white liberal racism inherent to American feminist histories as well. These inherently racist feminist manifestations are further evidenced by the reality that white women voted for Trump in the 2016 elections – a president who admits to sexually assaulting women, incites racist and violent rhetoric on a daily basis, and has dismantled the laws of reproductive freedom and healthcare in the U.S.
In recognising the ways in which choice has been co-opted, feminist scholars have moved to position the language of choice to a much broader, intersectional framework of reproductive and environmental justice (Valdez et al. 2019; Price 2010; Roberts 1999; Ross & Solinger 2017; Lappe, Hein and Landecker 2019). Here the importance of collective responsibility rather than individualised narratives of responsibility (Agard-Jones 2013) takes precedence, and choice is understood as dependent on the political intersecting structural privileges on which it is based – whiteness/race, gender, capitalism and class. Perhaps most profoundly, the #MyBodyMyChoice campaigners at the ‘You can’t Close America Rally’ fail to understand that while the virus doesn’t discriminate according to Republican or Democrat stances, it cuts deeply into people’s lives and communities where reproductive justice and choice is not available, constrained or denied; of communities that are already structurally disadvantaged by gender inequities, poverty, racial discrimination and myriad forms of marginalisation.
Megan Warin is an anthropologist and Professor in the School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide, South Australia. Her research on eating and embodiment examines gender and responsibility in scientific discourses of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) and epigenetics, and the ways in which women’s reproductive bodies and behaviours are positioned as key environments of temporality and health for future generations. Twitter: @megan_warin Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Natali Valdez is an anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Her work cuts across the intersections of feminist techno-science, reproduction, and postgenomics. Her forthcoming book Weighing the Future: Epigenetics and Pregnancy in Late Capitalism is the first ethnography of ongoing prenatal trials in the United States and United Kingdom. Twitter: @anthro919 Email: email@example.com
We would like to thank our colleagues in the Nutrire CoLab for their collaborative intellectual engagement and support.
Agard-Jones V. (2013). Bodies in the system. Small Axe 17:182–92.
Gill, R. (2017). The affective, cultural and psychic life of postfeminism: A postfeminist sensibility 10 years on. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 20(6), 606-626.
Lappé, M., Jeffries Hein, R., & Landecker, H. (2019). Environmental Politics of Reproduction. Annual Review of Anthropology, 48, 133-150.
Laster Pirtle, W. (2020). Racial capitalism: a fundamental cause of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic inequities in the United States. Health Education & Behavior, 1090198120922942.
Price, K. (2010). What is reproductive justice? How women of color activists are redefining the pro-choice paradigm. Meridians, 10(2), 42-65.
Roberts, D. E. (1999). Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage.
Ross, L., & Solinger, R. (2017). Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. Univ. of California Press.
Valdez, N., & Deomampo, D. (2019). Centering Race and Racism in Reproduction. Medical Anthropology. 38(7):551-559.